Senate bill would let REMCs build fiber optic over existing electrical infrastructure
Jeanie Tolbert is just one of many residents of rural Indiana frustrated with not having good options for reliable internet service. “We live near the Spring Mill Park/60 East/Hollace Chastain Road area,” she wrote in an email. “We currently have a hot spot through Verizon that we use to load data/emails/submit homework. We do not stream.”
The only other option Tolbert has for internet is satellite, which she said isn’t good service because of data limits, the net constantly going out and the receiver had to be re-directed when trees fill out with leaves. “We dropped (satellite) after one year due to poor service,” she said. “I’m very frustrated because I know that fiber optics infrastructure is literally running along highway 60 East, but no company will invest to bring it down roads branching off of 60.” And Tolbert isn’t the only one frustrated with the internet situation.
In fact, people like her who live in rural areas are the inspiration behind State Sen. Eric Koch’s FIBRE bill. Senate Bill 478, also called the Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion Act, “would allow Indiana’s rural electric cooperatives to provide high-speed internet service to their members by permitting them to install fiber optic cables on their existing infrastructure over electric easements,” according to a press release.
The bill passed the Indiana Senate with a vote of 48-2, and will now be considered by the Indiana House of Representatives. “It’s an issue that I’ve been working on for as long as I’ve been in the General Assembly,” said Koch, R-Bedford. “In the 15 years that I have been working to promote rural broadband in Indiana, this initiative has the most potential to fill the gaps in the unserved and underserved areas of our state. Almost by definition, the areas served by our rural electric co-ops are those most unserved with high-speed internet service.”
Broadband internet, Koch said, is something that would improve the lives of rural residents. He also said not having good internet options negatively impacts property values. “I think people in rural areas are entitled to the same access to the internet that anyone else is,” Koch said. “And we are seeing more and more internet use in school in the K through 12 grades, and we’re seeing more and more online courses offered through higher education.” In addition, the number of home-based businesses is increasing, Koch explained.
A couple of years ago, Koch was working on another issue with the Indiana Electric Cooperatives, and he saw maps of all the areas that are served by REMC’s in Indiana. “As we were working on this other issue, it occurred to me that those maps aligned almost exactly with ones I had of unserved areas in rural Indiana. … I immediately saw them as the key.
I said, ‘You guys got to help me. We have to find a way to leverage your role in rural areas. That was kind of the beginning of the conversation a year or two ago.”
But the REMCs told him the issue was that in the 1930s, when the not-for-profit, member-based electric cooperatives formed, internet didn’t exist. So now, the problem is that the property easements are only for electric infrastructure and not fiber optic cables. Matt Deaton, general manager of Orange County REMC, expressed similar sentiments for the almost 8,000 customers the co-op serves.
“I feel like it’s kind of a similar situation to when electrical co-ops formed in the 1930s to bring electricity to areas that didn’t have it,” Deaton said. He sees the need both on a professional level as the general manager of Orange County REMC and at home. “I’m from this area.
I have friends in this area,” he said. “I have heard from wives or professors who would like to work from home more. But they can’t. They have to go into town and go somewhere with good internet.
I’ve also heard from people who would love to move to this area but they’ll tell me, ‘High-speed internet is keeping me from moving back.'” “I think we’re just data-dependent in our culture, and in the future, we will only become more data-dependent,” he said. “And high speed fiber broadband has been shown to improve economics in an area where there is high speed broadband.” He also has three kids, all with smartphones, and there’s a smart TV in the house, so when all the devices pull for internet, everything is slow to load.
“So I guess I’ve witnessed it as well. It’s important for anyone to have such a high speed internet option,” he said. That’s why his co-op sent out surveys to its members asking about the possibility of Orange County REMC offering broadband services through its existing infrastructure for electrical easements.
“It’s a very important topic that takes time to look at: What role can the co-op play in serving our members better?” Deaton explained. “… It is my personal feeling that electrical co-ops are in a good position for this in that we already have a connection to each and every house in our rural areas. … It’s not a focus on necessarily making money; It’s a focus on better serving all of the lines we have and delivering service to our members.”
And the members he’s heard back from agree. “We started surveying our membership in the fall of last year after kind of getting the feel of the membership that they may want this from our co-op. … We’ve heard back from about 10 percent, and it’s a resounding ‘Yes, please consider supplying high speed internet to us, to the members.'”
Tolbert, for one, is waiting for the day when there’s viable broadband internet options in her area.
“High-speed internet would change my life!
I’d be able to take online courses in my nursing career, my kids could submit homework with ease, and I could stream video and music like the rest of the modern world,” she said.
By Shayne Dwyer/WDBJ7 | Posted: Tue 6:30 PM, Feb 07, 2017 | Updated: Tue 6:49 PM, Feb 07, 2017
RICHMOND, Va. (WDBJ7) We’re following developments in Richmond tonight on a heavily criticized bill affecting municipal broadband.
Tuesday morning the Virginia House of Delegates passed the “Wireless Services Authority Act.” Delegate Kathy Byron of Bedford sponsored the legislation. Originally the bill would have required local governments share confidential customer pricing agreements with the public, and thus competitors. The bill went through two substitutions and on the house floor Tuesday, Byron promised to remove that regulation restricting confidentiality when the bill makes it to a senate committee.
Frank Smith is the President and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority. He worked in Richmond with lawmakers to help change the bill This version, with the promise by Byron, is something the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority said it can live with. “I affectionately called it the broadband death star bill and we’re glad that the delegate has listened to us and to our concerns, and to other members of her constituents,” Smith said. “So we think that the fact that this has changed from a bill that we thought was extremely harmful to our efforts to provide municipal broadband and now it’s to the point where it actually restates and reinforces the laws as far as open books and open rates which we do right now.”
Smith said the RVBA supports transparency and open information, but the sharing of specific contract pricing and negotiations with customers would have severely impacted its success. He added that the RVBA wasn’t the only one with problems with the bill, adding that other municipalities across Virginia had issues with it and even the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, a national organization, had taken a stance against it. Smith said major IT companies like Google, Netflix, Nokia, and others had written letters against the previous versions of the bill.
According to Smith, there was some support for the bill – but that support came from competing Internet Service Providers.
“Primarily I would say that it was some of the incumbent providers, in particular in the cable association,” Smith said.
The bill still needs to clear the Senate before it could go to the Governor’s desk for signing.
A bill that would either hobble local governments’ efforts to expand broadband internet service or safeguard taxpayers from misspending on unwise projects – depending on who’s asked – got a rewrite last week. At least one critic says the bill still contains wording that makes it harder for local governments to provide service to unserved areas, something Fauquier County wants to do. House Bill 2108, the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act, is now before the House Committee on Commerce and Labor in the Virginia General Assembly.
It was introduced by Delegate Kathy Byron, a Republican representing the 22nd District, which includes parts of Bedford, Campbell and Franklin counties and the city of Lynchburg. John Stirrup, a former Prince William County supervisor now a lobbyist with Alcade and Fay in Arlington, said “there were substantial changes but it’s still very problematic on two points. Most of the issues in the bill are addressed by current law (transparent pricing, enforcement, annual audit) and the Freedom of Information Act exemption would not exempt municipal broadband.”
He said the latter is a “poison pill.” Private providers already have the exemption, which protects against disclosure of proprietary records, trade secrets or working papers. Not giving localities and the providers they would deal with the same disclosure shield would have a “chilling effect” on their ability to compete, Stirrup said. Port authorities and airport authorities, for example, have the exemption, he said.
Stirrup’s firm represents the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, which built a 50-mile network to serve business parks, large institutions, government facilities and businesses. Construction of another 30-mile segment begins this week. “We’ve met with her,” he said of Byron. “She maintains [the bill] will increase deployment of broadband,” Stirrup said. “We think it’s counterintuitive and doesn’t get there.”
The bill may go to the full House next week. It could still be amended further by the committee or when it reaches the House. Stirrup noted that Gov.
Terry McAuliffe (D) said he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk. Stirrup said the supporters of the Byron bill point to the hit taxpayers took in the Bristol area from a broadband effort there. But Stirrup said those losses came about from a criminal act rather than from mismanagement or a poorly planned broadband service.
Rick Gerhardt, chairman of the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, has said the Byron bill is a “farce” that aims to protect the interests of Comcast and other members of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association. But the view from the other side is that the bill provides needed protections. Ray LaMura, VCTA’s president, a Byron bill supporter, told the Fauquier Times “Local governments have been making their concerns known to newspapers rather than sitting down with Delegate Byron to discuss their concerns.
The Virginia Way is to sit down, discuss and try to resolve differences. “I think what Delegate Byron tried to address are their concerns without having the specifics. Did they think the bill was too burdensome?
It’s no longer … I’d like to know what’s burdensome. Is complying with FOIA burdensome?
Or an annual audit?” he said. “Some localities have organized under the Virginia Wireless Authority Act or through a charter. The act says they need to cover the cost of operating the project and have sufficient revenue to cover bond payments,” LaMura said.
He said Byron “asked our thoughts” about the bill as it was being crafted. He said she also drew from other sources and from her experience as a member of the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council. She chairs the council, which was set up to help determine goals for broadband in the commonwealth and how to achieve them.
LaMura is a member. LaMura said Byron’s aim is “making sure the priority of taxpayer funds were focused on unserved areas of Virginia using speeds defined by the Federal Communications Commission and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. “I think they need to read the bill a little more closely,” LaMura said of critics. “Doesn’t it make more sense to work with those involved every day to extend networks farther or to go it alone, borrow taxpayer dollars, hire more employees and construct a network from scratch?”
The bill also calls for a public auction should a locality decide to sell its broadband network and bars the use of eminent domain to condemn any plant or equipment of a private provider to allow the locality to use it. A locality must also not discriminate in providing access to public infrastructure such as poles and conduits. LaMura said the members of his association — Cox Communications, Shentel, Comcast, Metrocast, Charter, Nelson County Cablevision, and Citizens Cablevision – have demonstrated a willingness to partner with local governments on broadband projects, pointing to 18 applications currently pending.